2021. A year for checks and balance?

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By Ricardo Sucre

2021 seems to me that will be the year to try political “checks and balances”. I don’t expect it to be in the liberal sense: of autonomous powers that limit each other, in a non zero-sum game as our constitution says -which includes the constitutional tradition- in its independence, the state branches “help to achieve the purpose of the State.” The classical conception. In Venezuela, they will be “checks and balances”, not autonomous state branches of government, but will have a political oversight effect.

Both the government and the opposition are aware that part of its complications and failures are due to its excesses and a lack of political restrictions.

In the case of the government, Maduro’s speech is consistent in addressing this idea. During the campaign for the parliamentary elections of december 6th of 2020, Maduro began to speak that the government “must be accountable” to parliament. He quoted a curious example. He acknowledged that the complaints against Rafael Ramírez (former President of the national oil industry PDVSA) made by the National Assembly elected on 2015 were true, but that the government did not pay attention to them.

He paid no attention to them, basically to protect Ramírez and not agree with the opposition. A critical aspect for the government due to the disastrous situation of PDVSA. Ramírez was not appointed by the opposition but by the governments of Chávez and Maduro. Ramírez’s unhappy expression during the 2006 presidential campaign about “PDVSA red red” is still remembered, which was highly applauded by the ruling party. Maduro is aware that the disaster in the oil industry is the responsibility of the government. In his words, he made it clear that if there had been a counterweight, possibly PDVSA’s fate would be different and the responsibility would not fall exclusively on the government. It must be remembered that Eulogio del Pino and Nelson Martínez, for example, were appointed by Maduro, not by the opposition. If the government had valued the parliamentary counterweight in 2015, these appointments would have gone through the political debate that the government did not want to give.

In the case of the opposition, on-december 26th of 2020 the AN approved the “Law to Reform the Statute that governs the Transition to Democracy…” Although on social media the discussion is legal, it is a kind of “constitutionalism of anything goes”, I focus on the political side. Article 17 created an instance called the “Political Council” which “is the body for coordinating, monitoring and evaluating the actions of the Presidency in charge of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”

Although the text does not speak about its members, the fact that it is “political” suggests a formation of political figures or representatives from the political parties. This instance has functions of “coordination, monitoring, and evaluation”. It is not an instance of consultation or merely advisory. Being a council it is supposed to be a collegiate body. That being so, it leads me to think of a “counterweight” towards Juan Guaidó and the “interim” within the G4 opposition.

It should be remembered that after the failure of the “Operation Gedeón” on May 3rd of 2020, PJ (Primero Justicia, one of the main opposition political parties) issued a statement in which, elegantly, it criticized that political decisions were concentrated in the Guaidó group, but those decisions affected to the opposition as a whole. In other words, when deciding, they weren’t consulted, but at the moment to”pay the bill”, everyone had to do it. At that time, PJ questioned the “Government Center” chaired by Leopoldo López.

The reform of the “Statute for the transition” puts on paper a political negotiation within the G4, mainly between VP (Voluntad Popular) and PJ, a party that has been more proactive in objections over the G-4 functioning . AD (Acción Democrática) and UNT (Un Nuevo Tiempo) have been more “Yes man” at least in public. The reform, then, defines counterweight mechanisms in the opposition linked to the G-4, mainly for the performance of Juan Guaidó, in a transaction: it supports Guaidó, in exchange for a more limited power for him or a power with levels of supervision.

We will see the formation of the “Political Council” to estimate the internal correlations within the G-4 opposition and how the political forces remain within this change.

Now, “checks and balances” for what?

In the case of the government, it is not to advance towards a liberal democracy because it is not its doctrine, but it could be to improve the public management. This is what Maduro allowed to see in an act with governors and mayors of the PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) on december 29th of 2020. It would be possible? It is not the first time that Maduro promises “change and prosperity.” Every year it does.

However, changes do happen. The “Maduro´s openness” promotes a new economic network whose scope is still being defined, with a social inequality between those who can dollarize and adjust to these changes, and those who cannot. There is a new economic environment that has shades. From the state economy that is associated with private groups -for example, the companies in association of which the governor of Portuguesa spoke, those that generate about 1,000,000 dollars annually in fees that go to the regional government of that state- to the best known, which are the retail companies known as the “bodegones economy.”

Although some sector of the opposition assumes the “ethical purity” affirms that those who participate in this economy “gave in” (for example, the criticisms of an interview that the BBC made to Alberto Vollmer from the company Ron Santa Teresa). This sector is one of the main beneficiaries of this “openness sponsored by Maduro” evidenced with the well-being displayed without any modesty or shame on social networks this Christmas, despite their “Great leap forward” of Mao style on their narrative. Well-being whose origin is not only its “talent or work” – which I do not doubt – but that “openness” promotes a climate that made possible the succulent dishes shown by this sector that although it denies it in its traditional hypocrisy, it takes advantage of much “talent and work” the incipient “Pact of dollars” that Maduro makes with the Venezuelan society.

However, the important test of the “checks and balances” for the government will be politically. The space to see if this idea has a basis will be the AN installed on January 5th of 2021. Will the government really accept that “they force it to change” as Maduro said in the act with the PSUV on December 29th of 2020? It is what will be seen. It looks difficult because it is a government with a lot of power and that it limits itself does not seem logical. However, recent theories about authoritarian forms of government suggest that it is possible (the “limited authoritarianisms” Boix and Svolik* talks about, 2013).

In the case of the opposition, the “checks and balances” can they be so that decisions go through a political evaluation before being implemented or decided, and are not the product of a “cogollo” (venezuelan expression to indicate an elitist decision-making political structure) that imposes and everyone must accept so that they are not implemented, because they try to avoid to be criticize in public or is it the first step for the G-4 opposition to define political rules to make decisions and interact with each other? In other words, defining rules for the “internal governance” of the G4.

The test for the opposition will be if it communicates some type of revision of its strategy or that it is discussed, regardless of whether it decides to maintain it or not. In my opinion, the opposition’s strategy since 2013 is wrong, but that’s another discussion. In other words, the test of the thesis of the “checks and balances” in the opposition will be the quality of the political discussion not only on the “what” but on “who”, to review or continue a strategy that in my view it doesn’t work, although the G4 leadership and the loudest opposition public on social media remain determined to maintain it.

If the statement that 2021 can be a year in which “checks and balances” will be explored -although they are not liberal because they are self-limiting- it would be a novelty by indicating that there is awareness that the inertia of a conflict that has stalled, does not lead to nothing.

The government assumes that without changes in management it will be difficult to govern even if it maintains power. On the other hand, the G-4 opposition internalizes that it must define mechanisms for political consultation between the parties of that alliance, because a unilateral policy but accepted by all, led it, among other reasons, to the situation of weakness in which it is today. None chose to negotiate but to build mechanisms to limit themselves, hoping that they would improve the political performance of each one.

If so, it is something new for Venezuela. There are truces, armistices, etc. to limit a conflict. But the novelty that I observe in the Venezuelan case is that more global and political “checks and balances” are being sought, which are institutionalized. Ideally, this would lower the political pressure and create a space to “regularize the conflict” between the government and the opposition in general. Either through some political negotiation or through pugnacity adjusted to certain rules, which is what I believe in and I see it possible for Venezuela. Assuming that the two groups no longer want a zero-sum conflict.

Originally posted on Mesa de Trabajo

Translated by Xavier Rodríguez Franco

*Boix, C, y Svolik, M. W. (2013). “The Foundations of Limited Authoritarian Government: Institutions, Commitment, and Power-Sharing in Dictatorship”. The Journal of Politics, 75, 2: 300-316.